Aucklander Gary Pointon found Spark's latest heartfelt ad strangely familiar, almost as though he'd seen it all before.
And that's because he had – at his own wedding on New Year's Eve in 2017.
In the lead-up to the nuptials, Pointon's father was battling cancer and it looked unlikely that he would be able to attend the event. The family made the decision to have him record a video at the hospital to be played on the day of the ceremony. Pointon's brother took care of the editing, which meant that neither the bride nor groom saw the video until it played on the day.
Pointon's eyes tear up as he talks about the moment when he saw the video of his father, who died before the wedding took place, saying it was one of the "hardest emotions" he's had to process.
"Your dad passes away but you still have a piece of him coming, and it's satisfying to know it's not over yet," Pointon told the Herald .
"As soon as that video ended it was last part of my father in this world."
He describes the first moment he saw the Spark ad as something of a "slow trigger", with each similarity cutting a little too close to the bone.
"It looked like they had plagiarised our wedding to sell mobile phone data," he says.
Pointon's suspicions grew further when he remembered that a member of the Spark marketing team was at the wedding.
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'Simply a coincidence'
Spark spokeswoman Ellie Cross strongly denies that the advertisement was based on the Pointon family story.
"While we acknowledge how distressed he is by the similarities between his personal experience and the storyline of the advertisement, we are certain that this is simply a coincidence," Cross says.
Cross says the Spark marketer who attended the wedding was not involved in the creation of the film concept, although she was involved in the project's later stages.
Our technology should bring us closer together. Little can be huge.Posted by Spark on Saturday, 27 April 2019
As part of its market research, Spark tested the ad on a number of families who'd had similar experiences, to see what effect it had on them.
During the selection of those families, the marketer recommended the researchers approach the Pointons, given their personal experiences.
However, the Spark team did not contact them.
Where ideas come from
Given Spark's stance, it will always be challenging to conclude that the ad was in fact based entirely on the Pointon wedding. There are certainly some stark similarities between the real wedding and the ad, but then again, the creative process is often messy, swirling with inspiration from various sources.
Cross says the lead creatives on this project drew on stories they'd encountered in the news, on social media and in stories from friends. For one of those involved, there was also a strong personal motivation behind the campaign.
"One creative's wife had lost her mother at a young age [and] her mother left her notes to open on her birthday every year," says Cross.
"They'd also been to weddings with tributes to deceased parents – typically by reading a quote or passage, having photos of loved ones at tables, or dancing to the deceased parent's favourite song."
Any of these anecdotes could, in theory, have inspired the campaign, but Pointon says it all just felt too "on the nose to be coincidental".
"We've been struggling to process our emotions about this," he says.
"We've been wondering: 'why are we hurt?', 'are we supposed to be hurt?' and 'why does this feel so wrong?' And we came to the conclusion that it's because it's cheapening one of the most emotional memories of our lives. It's taking that moment in memory and tarnishing it for us."
Collateral damage in advertising
In my view, Spark's real mistake in this process wasn't necessarily making the ad, but rather failing to contact a family they knew would be affected by it.
The marketer who had attended the wedding advised the researchers to contact the Pointons, but they didn't.
It would have been impossible to contact every family who kept an empty seat for a relative who couldn't attend a special occasion, but this was one family they could have contacted.
That would have gone at least some way towards mitigating the risk of offence caused to someone who was known to the business.
"We're not looking for monetary gain or anything, we just wanted to be notified," says Pointon, explaining that they could have been given a heads-up at any point during the production process.
He says that would have allowed them to prepare for what was coming rather than being surprised on Facebook.
The risks in developing a campaign like this would have been clear from the outset. There's a reason for the advertising rule of thumb that you should never mention death when trying to get consumers to buy things. People simply don't like to be reminded of their own mortality.
But these risks aren't limited to creative adverts dealing with death. Any time an advertiser takes a political position or presents something edgy, there's a risk of alienating or offending a certain group of people.
Sometimes this collateral damage hits big groups, as was the case with Nike's decision to alienate NFL-mad Trump supporters with its Colin Kaepernick campaign. Other times, the impact is felt in smaller groups, like family members who may not have had both parents present at a wedding.
If anything, Spark's ad is a reminder that the size of the group doesn't always reflect the level of hurt felt.